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What Is a Hotspot and How Do They Work?

a mobile device with a wifi symbol on it

In simple terms, a hotspot is how you share an internet connection from your cell phone to other devices that normally can only access the internet through WiFi. Being able to use your phone as a hotspot can be a lifesaver if, for example, you accidentally end up in one of those trendy WiFi-free coffee shops, and all you want to do is quickly check your emails on your laptop. 

That’s why hotspots are so convenient – as long as you have cellular data, you can create a hotspot with your phone and connect any device to the internet. 

Hotspots are useful at other times, too. While WiFi has become more reliably available over the years, sometimes you get inconsistent connections or power outages that leave you without WiFi at home. In other cases, connecting to an unsecured WiFi network is too much of a security risk. Thanks to encryption, connecting your device to a hotspot that uses data from your cellular network is more secure than connecting to a potentially unencrypted WiFi network — especially public WiFi hotspots.

In all of these examples, you can use your cellular data to access the internet both on your mobile phone and from other devices by tethering them to your hotspot.

Looking for a good phone plan with plenty of data for your hotspot needs? That’s where our Plan Finder can help. It’s free, unbiased, and shows you the best cell phone plans from top carriers based on your criteria.

How to Set Up a Cellular Hotspot

As long as you have a smartphone, it’s pretty simple to use your phone to create a hotspot. Here’s how to do it by phone type.

How to Set Up a Personal Hotspot on your iPhone

  1. Navigate to the "cellular" option in the iOS settings. 
  2. Activate the "personal hotspot" by toggling its slider to the on position. 
  3. If you wish to permit other devices to connect, enable the "allow others to join" option.

How to Set Up a Personal Hotspot on an Android Device

  1. To configure a hotspot on an Android device, access the settings menu and long-press the "mobile hotspot" icon to activate it. 
  2. You can find the name of your device’s hotspot in your device's WiFi settings.
  3. To allow others to join your hotspot, you’ll have to share the password you chose for it.

Common Hotspot Terms Explained

So that you can get a real grasp on the concept of a hotspot, let’s quickly define some of the key terminology.

What Is WiFi?

WiFi is the radio signal sent from a router to a compatible device, like a laptop or an iPad. For a WiFi connection to exist, you need a router. For the best Wi-Fi performance, you should put the router in a central location in your home or business. That’s because the further you get from the router, the worse your wireless connection will be.

You can password-protect your home WiFi network, but there are dangers to using WiFi in public places. Because data is transferred over airwaves, public WiFi is susceptible to hacking and data theft, so it’s a good idea to avoid using important passwords or logging into sensitive apps while on public WiFi.

Mobile Hotspot Devices

Using your phone as a hotspot is convenient, but there are also some downsides: it tends to drain your battery life, and many phone plans come with limited hotspot data.

If you’d prefer not to load up on data in your phone plan, you may want to purchase a separate mobile hotspot device, like the Inseego MiFi X PRO, which is compatible with any mobile network. The best way to think of dedicated hotspot devices is like mini, portable WiFi routers. 

Which Plans Offer the Most Hotspot Data?

Okay, so using your phone as a hotspot lets you share your cellular data with a device that can’t connect to cellular data, like a laptop or an iPad. The question is which service provider offers a plan with enough data for your hotspot needs?

We've got a breakdown of the best hotspot data plans right here. Beyond that, all the top carriers – AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, but also Spectrum Mobile, Xfinity Mobile, UScellular, and more – offer cell phone plans with different amounts of cellular data and hotspot data. Some cell carriers count hotspot data as part of your overall monthly data allowance, while others count hotspot data as a separate data pool. If you intend to use your phone as a hotspot, when you're comparing plans, you just need to look for a plan that includes not only cellular data but hotspot data as well. 

For example, if you only intend to use your hotspot approximately once per week, 5GB of hotspot data should suffice. But if you plan on using your hotspot up to three times per week, you’ll want to look for up to 15GB of hotspot data. And if you anticipate needing your hotspot more than three times per week, you’ll need more than 15GB of hotspot data.

The good news is that our free, unbiased Plan Finder below makes it easy to find and compare phone plan deals from major providers based on your needs, including how much hotspot data you need. Just answer a few questions to get started.

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The Bottom Line

If hotspots are on your mind and you can see yourself either using a mobile hotspot device or using your phone as a hotspot a lot, you want to make sure you get the best data plan for your internet access needs. Still not sure how much hotspot data is right for you? For a deeper dive into data, including not only hotspot data but cellular data more broadly, be sure to check out our articles How Much Data Do Mobile Hotspots Use and How Much Data Do I Need

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